To sing seems to be an innate desire of the human heart. The voice, this most perfect instrument, is of the Lord’s creation. For us to create in harmony with it is a privilege and a delight.
Many of us now, with this new opportunity before us with the invitation to submit music and lyrics for a new hymnbook, are anxious to write hymns — and for most that is entirely new territory. What I have to offer, above all, is my own experience. Anyone reading this can go to books, to the internet, and find outlines of how to structure and write a lyric — though not necessarily a hymn.
Let me share here what I have learned.
First, I learned that poems are not lyrics. A lyric is more a series of phrases that are sharp, to the point, and easy to understand. A lyric profits from a hook — a phrase or group of words repeated over and over: throughout the verse, or in a simple, repetitive chorus — so that the words stick in the listener’s mind. You hear a song you love on the radio, you listen to it two or three times, and find you can hum the tune and remember the words to the repetitive phrases. Even “Lord, I Would Follow Thee” ("Hymns," No. 220) does this. Each verse begins with a “topic line” that is then further developed and repeated again at the end. Here's from the second verse:
"Who am I to judge another." (Why? Because "I walk imperfectly.")
Then a tender expansion: "In the quiet heart is hidden sorrow that the eye can’t see. Who am I to judge another?" (repeated).
And then the final drawing-together appeal: “Lord, I would follow thee.”
Cadence and word count, or syllable count, are crucial. One line out of sync can be like the screech of chalk on a board.
Clarity is vital, as is simplicity. But so is beauty. And beauty can often be achieved by a “singing flow of words” or by the use of unusual words, rather than those that commonly come to mind — and especially those which we consider trite, such as lovely, beautiful, sweet, exciting, amazing, etc.
Think again of “Lord, I Would Follow Thee”: “I walk imperfectly” — this is a different, thought-provoking and humble way of saying "I am so less than perfect, I am so less than I want to be." Even “quiet heart” draws forth images and emotions that “hurting heart” or “tender heart” would not achieve.
And there are these from a little song I wrote with Michael Moody:
In the silence of the evening/ Underneath a winter sky,/ When the stars stream forth in splendor,/ Thy coming Lord, is nigh./ Oh, will I see thee in the beauty?/ Will I hear the angels sing?/ Are my own gifts pure and ready/ for an offering to bring?
(I don’t want to be blind, I don’t want to be unworthy — all bound up in that last line).
Consider Charles Wesley’s lines in “Jesus, Lover of My Soul,” when he pleads: “All my help from thee I bring. Cover my defenseless head with the shadow of thy wing.” Nothing can excel such a phrase, and the soaring feeling behind it that renders it almost holy ("Hymns," No. 102).
So, write from your heart. Write from the depths of emotions that beset you with power, and cannot be denied! And yet — do not let these emotions muddle you: that is a challenge.
Every hymn needs a progression or development, and a resolution. Sometimes these are easily identifiable, other times more subtle. Read and re-read song lyrics — over and over again — especially those of favorite and time-proven hymns, and you will begin to see what I mean, for I have no space to give the examples I would like to here.
Listen to Music
Listen to music. Lots of music, any kind of music that “draws you out.” Early in my experience I had a daunting assignment from Sister Elaine A. Cannon, then Young Women general president. She needed a song for the worldwide conference in the Tabernacle on Temple Square. She asked me to write the lyrics and wanted them based on a very unpoetic and straightforward scriptural verse 2 Timothy 1:7: “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.”
Then she met with myself and the composer, conveying to us to produce "something remarkable."
I was terrified at her statement. I was young and quite unsure of myself. I prayed, I tried; I nearly despaired. Then my husband and I went to see the new film, The Jazz Singer with Neil Diamond, and my head filled with beautiful sounds. My husband, James, kindly agreed that I could desert him and run upstairs to my typewriter and begin to write. The music somehow unlocked something within me. Here are some of the lines from the finished song, which is online at lds.org:
Today I stand and face my life./So much I do not know./But everywhere I go,/although I cannot see,/my Father walks with me;/ he walks with me if I will listen./I will listen;/I want to listen to him. …
Unhappiness, uncertainty/ they crowd around my feet,/ but they cannot defeat the things I want to be./ I hear his words to me./ My Father does not give to me/ the spirit that is fear./ He draws me ever near/ that I may feel his love,/ grow strong and rise above —/ that in my darkest hour/ my life will know the spirit of his pow'r.
Immerse yourself in prayer — from the very start. Practice patience. And make sure that your spirit is tempered with love. Then the best within you will find the expression you desire. I know this to be true.
Lead image from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Susan Evans McCloud is a freelance writer and a student of Latter-day Saint and Utah history, Scottish history, and literature. She is the author of two hymns in the hymnbook. She loves birds, bees, beehives, fine art, and classical music.